Early colonial policing in the northern United States looked a lot like British policing. Composed of “watches,” the groups were able-enough-bodied volunteers or conscripts designated with making the rounds, usually at night. They watched for fires, kept up sanitation standards, had an eye out for witches, and delivered the “hue and cry”—the alarm system for criminal activity (yelling, mostly).
They were often drunk, and when things weren’t dangerous, they were probably bored. Some watches, though, took the job more seriously and with ethical import. These nobler types pursued violent culprits, and they let you know when the British were near.
Things were different in the Southern states. Besides the common watchmen of countryside hamlets and towns, slave patrols were developed to exercise control over the vast geo-socioeconomic swath of institutionalized slavery. These patrols maintained the spatial order of the day: the monitoring, trafficking, and bondage of minorities. They busted up slave meetings, apprehended runaways, and acted as highway authorities on the rural roads and waters of the antebellum.
[Published in the Miami Rail on September 1, 2015. Read the rest here.]